GLYNDON, Minn. – Quiver, a 2-year-old yellow labrador retriever, seemed to know what would impress the judges at the North Dakota Retriever Club hunt test Saturday.
The dog emerged from thick grass at the test grounds north of Glyndon, proudly displaying a recovered duck in his mouth and shrewdly slowing down to show judge Fran Smith.
Was it an attempt to impress the woman scoring him? Only Quiver knows. But it worked.
“I am impressed,” Smith enthusiastically said to the dog and his handler Lyle Steinman.
Just for bonus points, Quiver delicately dropped the duck and correctly heeled at Steinman’s side.
Steinman handled 19 of nearly 100 master-level dogs at the American Kennel Club certified tests. He said it’s difficult for even the best hunting dogs to make it to the master level.
“You have to have a good dog,” Steinman said. “But you have to have an animal who has a natural ability. The IQ, the brains, it all goes back to genetics.”
Dogs in the AKC tests begin as juniors, and then move on to the senior level.
After passing several tests, they can advance to the masters.
Once there, the dogs are put through far more challenging tests, including blind retrieval.
It means the dogs can’t see the birds go down and must rely on their senses to retrieve them.
Because of the level of difficulty, only 20 percent pass.
“The master dogs competing are better than 99 percent of the hunting dogs out there,” NDRC president Henry Van Offelen said. “It gives you a measure on which to gauge and see what dogs can do.”
The final tests continue today at the NDRC main grounds, two miles west of Glyndon.
Steinman, the owner of Castile Creek Kennels in Stewartsville, Mo., handles and trains master and senior hunting dogs.
“(Castile Creek trainer) Greg (Nelson) and I only train dogs we love,” Steinman said. “We don’t train ones we don’t like. It’s got to be a mutual respect.”
Trainers and handlers must teach a dog how, when and where to heel, react and retrieve.
“A big thing with all these dogs (is) the obedience,” Steinman said. “You need a lot of obedience.”
Every dog must heel at the handler’s side before beginning the test and after retrieving each bird.
“We’re not looking for the best athletes, we’re looking for the type of dog who wants to work with us,” Steinman said.
Max, a six-year-old labrador retriever Steinman handles, is believed to be the most accomplished master dog in the nation with 68 master test passes.
He’ll be going for No. 69 this weekend.
“The level of expectations of what we’re wanting is so tough, a very small percentage make it anymore,” Steinman said.
Tim Slattery, a former professional football player from Celina, Texas, has handled dogs professionally for 16 years. He has eight master dogs and two seniors competing at the tests.
“I’ve got a competitive edge in me,” Slattery said. “I like to get out there with the dogs and tear it up.”
Slattery and Steinman said they often trade tips and tricks about courses when testing.
“We’re constantly tuning each other in,” Slattery said.
Like Slattery and Steinman, several professional trainers from across the country used the tests to qualify dogs for nationals.
For Bob and Lynn Louiseau of Perham, Minn., the tests were the first step in training Delta, their 1-year-old yellow labrador retriever.
It was the first hunt test for Bob Louiseau, 53, who joined the NDRC in order to learn how to properly train Delta, who competes at the junior level.
“It’s kind of fun to be taught,” said the former peewee hockey coach. “I’m learning things from 20-year-olds who’ve been doing this longer than I have.”